(P6): Deceit

An artistic rendition of the Tower of Babel

All conflict involves deceit. In fact, all communication involves some level of deceit, whether purposeful or not. This is because all communication is necessarily limited. Truthful mutual understanding is only achieved through long-term authentic relationships.

Deceit is in no way an unalloyed good or evil since it can be both manipulation and self-defense at the same time. Deceit always makes management of an advocacy strategy more complex and less controllable. Deceit can be an impulsive act to help control some unexpected disturbance in the advocacy possibility space. Deceit seems safe, a way of increasing the security of the advocacy strategy. It isn’t. It can and does reduce your choices in the advocacy possibility space.

Deceit in advocacy initiatives is of three kinds and all three are always present (if not necessarily competently implemented) in every conflict:

  • Strategic deceit
  • Tactical/Operational deceit
  • Self-deceit

Strategic Deceit

Because a true strategy is a framework for managing future uncertainty and scarce resources, any statement of the strategy is automatically deceitful because the statement can’t frame the actual use to which the framework will be put. Of course, this applies to those who are part of the advocacy initiative as well, although communication and relationships are stronger within the initiative as opposed to the interaction between the advocacy effort and the target. This isn’t strategic deceit.

Strategic Deceit is a performance that provokes uncertainty in the target’s choices about the advocacy initiative. It is analogous to the operational notion of the Indirect Approach (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indirect_approach) that your actions should be ambiguous as far as their outcome is concerned.

A successful Strategic Deceit requires a deep understanding of how the target thinks, and how it values. This knowledge is not something especially prized by advocacy organizations that view advocacy as supporting only the appropriate implementation of rules and regulations, which, by their nature, aren’t about what the target’s actors think and value.

Tactical/Operational Deceit

There is a wide base of public information about this kind of deceit. There have been many books about military based operational and tactical deceit, and there is a kind of cottage industry in articles about the cleverness of such deceit. Because of the actual military actions that are subjected to deceitful preparation, the deceit comes as a surprise to the opponent. This surprise is a lot more difficult to pull off as part of an advocacy initiative, where the initiative may go on for months or years.

There is always a downside to discovered deceit. Once the deceit is discovered, the target will devote more energy to paying attention to you and they will feel more justified in extravagant deceit and trolling than they did before the discovery of your misinformation.

Tactical deceit can be useful for, say, a specific IEPC. There are also ways to cloud your purposes by careful orchestration of your messaging without lying about those purposes. For example, a method I have mentioned in other posts and slides is to initiate an advocacy action in several local areas without showing that you are creating several nuclei for the initiative. Local targets will respond to the local initiative without seeing the larger pattern, and their responses will be less effective as a result. This kind of short-term deceit is only constrained by your understanding of the target’s motivations and values, and your initiative’s creativity.


The most problematic form of deceit in advocacy initiatives is Self-Deceit. There are two reasons for this.

One is that humans have evolved to be more optimistic than pessimistic; see (https://grist.org/article/80-percent-of-humans-are-delusionally-optimistic-says-science/). Optimism produces hope and hope can generate action even when situations seem very dire. This is especially a useful bias when there is no obviously effective way to deal with some threat. But optimism is a bias. We use optimism to maintain advocacy energy, but the bias affects how we frame our actions, and how we execute them. So, we make mistakes because of our optimism.

Depressive Realism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depressive_realism) is the other side of the coin in self-deceit. Mild and moderately depressed individuals are better at predicting outcomes under uncertainty than people who are optimistic. It is difficult, though to see how running an advocacy initiative using depressive realism would work out well in an activist community.

The best way to manage this in my book is to allow optimism to generate energy while making use of the insights of depressive realism to manage tactical/operational decisions.

In general, I think that deceit makes effective advocacy more complex and difficult. But, if you must, use the framework of obfuscation rather than outright deceit.

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Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, 2dogs, advocate45+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, pa2Loree, gndpa2Nevin